I recently revisited an old photography and birding patch near the Welsh capital, Cardiff in the hope of finding one of the most elusive little birds. Over the years I've spotted many kingfishers in different places but never been closer enough to get a shot I was happy with. Forest Farm in Radyr is one of the best spots I've seen them so far so I started the say full of hope. Plenty of rabbits, moorhens and magpies passed through but the elusive remained elusive. As is the case with most wildlife, things only happen straight away or at the very last moment...it's typical. Just as hope was draining, a flit of blue flew right over the hide and down to the perch directly in front of my lens. All in all the colourful critter stayed for about three minutes after several hours waiting. It was worth the wait.
All childhood instincts return as you wind your way down the snaking country roads, channelled by tall hedgerows, waiting for a gap or a high place to catch a glimpse of that shimmering blue mass, lying invitingly calm in the sunshine. The sea. For me and so many others, it is a constant calling to return to the coast, to take deep breaths of salty air and hear the screech of gulls littering the sky above. Sea birds. There's something about them that intrigues me. There is so much to learn about their lives both on land and at sea and are a collective of ornithological splendour that are so often caught up in both natural and man-made disasters, therefore in great need of conservation.
It is always a pleasure to visit Skomer Island, just off the Welsh coast of Pembrokeshire. Not only for the natural beauty of the land and abundance of wildlife, but also for the feeling that your being there is, in one small way aiding the survival of some of the most charismatic sea birds Britain has to offer. Not only does the money spent on a visit go directly towards the conservation of sea bird colonies, but more interestingly still, the presence of humans, so long as they are sensible and respectful, can help deter predators; allowing Britain's most comical bird, the Puffin, a safer place to raise its young.
As you are packed like salmon onto the Dale Princess (a small price to pay for the experience to come) the excitement is well and truly in the air. A mixture of seasoned island-goers and newcomers listen half-heartedly to the standard safety warnings, whilst distracted somewhat by the surroundings. As the boat bobs along, hugging the coast, the air begins to fill with gasps, shouts and tiny black specks, jetting to and fro across the horizon. Within sight of the small jetty on Skomer the expectations are fulfilled, as puffins, razorbills and guillemot sit in their hundreds upon the shimmering sea or flicker over head with just enough time to distinguish between a bright red and yellow bill or a black one. Further out gannets can be seen, as their long pointed, black-tipped wings flash before folding away and with expert precision they pierce the surface of the sea and no doubt their breakfast too. The long climb up the cliff takes an age as newcomers and seasoned birders alike are distracted by razorbills audibly attacking intruding guillemots on the rocks and the clowns of the sea littering the grassy cliffs, popping in and out of their burrows to see what excitement this boat load has brought.
By the time I discovered the spoonbills, the light was beginning to fade and the parking ticket was beginning to run out. But I believe one of the biggest parts of wildlife photography is the experience and not taking the photo at all. This of course sounds bonkers but I honestly believe that sometimes it's about knowing when to put the camera down and just watch. Learn that species, appreciate their beauty and study their behaviour. Then next time you see that particular animal again, you'll be better prepared for capturing the character behind the species. In this case, I was able to capture a few shots and then step back and appreciate an incredible bird I was not expecting to see.
Anybody who knows me will tell you I have a slight obsession with the Scottish highlands. Lochs, mountains, pine forests, an abundance of wildlife - just a few of my favourite things. One of the best places to visit in the winter is the beautiful Cairngorm National Park. Mountains and forests for the walkers, stunning lochs for the landscapers and quarter of the UK’s rare and endangered wildlife species for the naturalists and conservationists. Of course as a wildlife photographer, it's the elusive wildlife that intrigues me most about this place - and it never disappoints.
Click images to enlarge.
Click images to enlarge.
Of course the favourite to see in the Cairngorms in the charismatic red squirrel. The smaller red cousin of the american grey squirrel used to be common across the country but due to the introduction of american grey that came to the UK with a deadly squirrel pox, the native reds have been constrained to small pockets mainly in the north of the country. The Cairngorms is still one of the only strongholds where the red squirrel is free to roam without any chance of coming into contact with the larger grey. That said, they are still elusive and take some looking and waiting for. The Rothiemurchus estate have set up a hide around an area of forest where they constantly feed the squirrels. For this reason, it's a pretty sure chance of seeing them here if you're prepared to wait for them. They are extremely entertaining to watch and are surprisingly tame. Respect their space and they'll reward you with a wildlife experience you won't forget.
For a long time now I have wanted to visit Regents Park in London to witness one of our cities biggest spectacles. Urban wildlife has always intrigued me and I have had a fair amount of experience watching Peregrines sweep over Bristol's skyline and in studying the lives of Great Crested Grebes hidden away in the man-made reservoirs and canals, merely five minutes from Cardiff City Centre. But Herons have always been a shy, lonesome bird to me that I have enjoyed watching roost over wetlands in the south west of England or silently fish on the Scottish coast. So to see half a dozen fight over food thrown to them by human hands, a stones throw away from our biggest and busiest city was a bizarre joy.
I really believe it is vitally important to hold on to these pockets of wild tranquillity within our urban areas. Escaping the busy city for five minutes of watching the grace of birds is therapeutic, calming and good for the soul.
It was also an incredible experience to witness so many younger generations being introduced to wildlife in such an accessible and exciting way - hopefully paving the way for wildlife lovers and conservationists of the future.
While visiting my brother in Newbury with the family, we took a walk through the famous Greenham Common during an unusually mild December afternoon. Greenham Common is of course known for being an old RAF base during the war as well as for the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp that was held outside its gates in the 1980s. Most recently the old airfield and it's bunkers were used in the recent Star Wars Episode Seven.
The paths were busy with cyclists and dog walkers as well as the odd sight seer (it was unclear whether they were interested in the history of WWII or star wars!) so after following a Red Kite that I was excited to see fly over, I soon found solitude among the gorse bushes listening for song birds and watching the Corvids chase the Red Kite. Solitude. It soon became a theme in my mind in this large open land where no one tread in fear of the spikey gorse bushes. I struggled with a pleasing landscape shot so soon switched to a slightly longer lens and began isolating solitary objects through use of depth of field or merely composing the subject into a sense of singularity.
It was an interesting exercise to restrict myself to a theme - even though the theme almost expanded from what I was naturally looking at and photographing at that point. I think it is sometimes good to fall back to basics and restrict some element whether it be in topic or just by using one particular lens in order to encourage creativity and think outside of that comfortable box we tend to cosy up in all too often.
That said... usual business will continue as usual in my next blog with a copious concoction of creatures and conservation.
It's been a hectic couple of months which have seen much neglect to my beloved camera gear. I'm working hard to turn this around and not let day-to-day troubles get in the way of what I want to do. I recently managed to get back some much needed solitude by visiting WWT Slimbridge. If you follow my work you'll probably have noticed I quite like it there! It is incredibly therapeutic to sit in a hide and study the characteristics of different bird species in order to think ahead and capture those characteristics in an image or on video. Plus there's nothing like being able to get close up to some of the most beautiful birds in the UK.
This friendly little feller is well known for being a courageous bird and will often get very close to humans, sometimes close enough to feed from your hand. When it comes to photographing wildlife, you'll often find yourself silently begging for them to come just a little closer - not a Robin! This over-confident garden resident was hopping around my feet in the hide and nearly took a fancy to my lens as a handy perch. This did however, give me the oportunity to switch to my new lens. A lens I was extremely excited about as I've only ever dreamt before of it's famous sharpness. The Nikon 70-200mm f2.8 II performed beautifully as I could have predicted, isolating the robin and blowing the background into a realm of soft nothingness. Shame to have a man-made object in the image but I still can't get over how pin-sharp that lens is! I'm looking forward to putting it to more use in the Cairngorm National Park in February where the Red Squirrels are tame enough to use 200mm effectively.
I am hoping to start uploading for video footage to my blogs from now onwards as I start building up my skills and portfolio in preparation for applying for a Masters Degree in Wildlife Filmmaking at UWE with the BBC in the new year. As the year takes a turn for the colder, the migratory birds are returning and the spectacle of watching thousands of Golden Plover and Lapwing take to the sky in a cloud of ornithological beauty is upon us once more.